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RELIGION

Austria to shut down Saudi-backed interfaith centre

The Austrian foreign ministry said on Wednesday it would implement a vote by MPs on the topic of closing a controversial Saudi-funded centre. The facility was created for religious dialogue in the capital Vienna.

Austria to shut down Saudi-backed interfaith centre
Faisal bin Abdulrahman Bin Muammar is the founding secretary-general of the KAICIID Centre. Photo: Alexander Klein/AFP

MPs voted on Wednesday to demand the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) be closed down following repeated criticism of Saudi Arabia's human rights record.

The latest vote was prompted by a recent case in which an 18-year-old was sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for alleged crimes committed when he was a child.

Austria's foreign ministry said that it would comply with parliament's decision and was “checking the necessary legal steps” in order to do so.

The centre would be closed in a way that “will not cause damage to Austria's foreign policy interests and which is in line with international practice,” the ministry said in a statement.

The centre has been a periodic source of controversy since opening in 2012, with critics saying it offered the government in Riyadh a way to gloss over accusations of severe human rights violations.

In a statement on Wednesday KAICIID said it had “received the news of today's parliamentary vote with concern”.

“KAICIID stands by its record in fostering dialogue all over the world. It should be judged on this record,” the statement said.

KAICIID said its “activities cannot… be identified with any particular state”.

The centre was opened with great pomp by UN chief Ban Ki-moon and senior figures from the world's main religions.

Its founding treaty was signed by Austria, Spain and Saudi Arabia, with the Holy See participating as a founding observer.

Until recently the centre had always enjoyed a degree of political protection in Austria, particularly from the centre-right People's Party (ÖVP) and its leader Sebastian Kurz.

But the collapse of Kurz's government last month, and his subsequent removal as chancellor in a confidence vote, meant that other parties were able to join forces to vote for Wednesday's motion on KAICIID.

In 2015 the then Chancellor Werner Faymann, who hailed from the centre-left, threatened to withdraw support from the centre unless it condemned the public flogging of Saudi blogger Raef Badawi.

At that time Kurz was foreign minister and the ÖVP did not join Faymann's criticism.

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COVID-19 RULES

Reader question: When will Vienna drop the mask requirement for public transport?

For several months, the Austrian capital has been the only province with a strict FFP2 mask mandate in public transport. But, with federal measures dropping soon, will Vienna abolish its face masks?

Reader question: When will Vienna drop the mask requirement for public transport?

The “Viennese way” has been a controversial part of Austria’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic, as the capital often used its prerogative to have stricter rules than the federal government. However, with Covid-19 numbers dropping, all but one Viennese restriction has been lifted: the mandatory use of FFP2 masks in public transport.

For months now, people riding public transport from Bregenz to Eisenstadt have been able to do so without wearing a mask – but that is not the case in Vienna. 

READ ALSO: Austria recommends 4th Covid vaccine dose for everyone over 12

In the capital, Mayor Michael Ludwig (SPÖ) insisted that masks were necessary to contain the pandemic, especially during the winter, when other respiratory infections have afflicted the population.

But the stricter measures have been criticised even by experts recently, as some Austrian epidemiologists claimed they were “no longer understandable”

Earlier this month, Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) announced that the country would drop all Covid restrictions by the end of June. As a result, as of May, there will no longer be a mask requirement in hospitals, nursing homes and doctor’s offices, as reported.

READ ALSO: Austria to drop all Covid restrictions by the end of June

Vienna, however, could keep its restrictions – but not forever. The Covid Measures Act, which allowed provinces to opt for stricter guidelines if they deemed necessary, will expire in July. There is, therefore, a deadline for the Viennese way.  

Will Vienna drop its mask requirements sooner?

Vienna could, of course, drop its stricter restrictions earlier than the deadline. The capital’s Act with the FFP2 mask mandate in public transport is set to expire on February 28th. The city could extend it – as it has done countless times before – but it could also let it expire, dropping the mask obligation starting in March.

This Wednesday, February 8th, the City of Vienna will discuss the further course of action in the fight against the coronavirus. Mayor Ludwig is set to meet with Covid experts at City Hall and the main point of discussion is the future of the mask mandate, Austrian media has reported.

READ ALSO: Long Covid: What support is available in Austria?

The City could also discuss other stricter measures it currently has, including the mandatory PCR test for people visiting the elderly and sick and the rule mandating hospital staff to test every week.

The measures that will continue to apply in March should be announced soon. If the city abolishes the mask requirement in the public transport system, the operators could voluntarily include it in their house rules, but it is unlikely that they would do so. 

Tram, bus and metro operator Wiener Linien told broadcaster ORF that t would only impose a mask requirement in line with regulations. ÖBB also said it would adopt the province rules.

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